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June 9, 1975. Dennis Gill, president of Suntours. Erik Christensen / The Globe and Mail
June 9, 1975. Dennis Gill, president of Suntours. Erik Christensen / The Globe and Mail


Entrepreneur Dennis Gill revolutionized travel Add to ...

Canadian travellers had limited choices when Dennis Gill moved from England to Toronto in 1963. Air fares were government-regulated and expensive. Package holidays meant bus tours. And winter vacations in the Caribbean were strictly for the rich.

Mr. Gill, 77, who died on Nov. 6 of complications from heart surgery, played a pivotal role in creating today's wide-open travel market. As president of Suntours, Canada's largest tour operator, he oversaw the first successful series of air-and-hotel packages from Canada to the Caribbean, the first transatlantic charter flights that could be sold legally to the general public and the first charter flights within Canada. All three innovations came about because of rule changes in Ottawa spurred in part by Gill's extensive lobbying campaigns.

Mr. Gill built Suntours - marketed to the public as Sunflight - into a massive operation that carried 440,000 passengers a year at its peak. Then in 1981 he walked away from the presidency and a $2-million share in equity in a dispute over the company's direction. Later as president of Fiesta Holidays, he turned Costa Rica into a mass-market winter holiday spot for eco-minded Canadians.

Industry veterans remember Mr. Gill as a dynamic orator, whether flogging his tours to travel agents or promoting professional standards in the travel community. He was also seen as a mentor, guru, approachable boss and above all a gentleman.

“When he was pleased with something,” says Richard Mansfield, a fellow executive at Suntours, “he would rapidly rub his hands in glee and beam at you.”

Mr. Gill was a frustrated lawyer who loved drafting lengthy legal documents, says Leonard Nathan, an executive and shareholder at both Suntours and Fiesta. Not only did he submit draft regulations to airline authorities in Ottawa, he helped write the bylaws for the Canadian Institute of Travel Counsellors, a professional association, and also for what is now the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, after it broke away from its parent group in the United States.

“When the Ontario Government decided it was politically right to both regulate the Ontario travel industry and establish an industry trust fund,” says Mr. Nathan, “Dennis's hand was firmly on the helm.” That fund, created in 1975, continues to protect Ontario travellers in the event of an industry bankruptcy or closure.

Colin Hunter, chairman of airline and tour giant Sunwing Travel Group, is typical of former Gill employees who went on to play leading roles at other travel companies.

“Sunflight was like a university for tour operations,” says Hunter. “We had a lot of freedom. Dennis encouraged us to use our initiatives.” If Mr. Gill could be faulted, says Mr. Hunter, it would be for devoting too much time and energy to industry affairs, to the possible detriment of his own business.

To his six children, Mr. Gill was the dream dad who took them to foreign lands on business trips and introduced them to unusual foods. “I am still surprised at some of the things that I ate before I was 12 years old,” says Neil Gill. “Jellied eels, fried worms, chocolate ants and pickled eggs to name just a few.”

Dennis Alan Gill was born in East London on Dec. 6, 1932. His father, Raymond Gill, worked in an asbestos plant and died of asbestosis in 1962. As a 13-year-old student, Mr. Gill earned spending money by organizing chartered bus tours to sporting events, pantomimes and ice shows. At 16 he left school to become an office boy with Clarksons, then a small London travel agency. He married Beryl Rawlings two years later. By the time Clarksons had expanded into the world's largest tour operator, Mr. Gill was passenger manager and an expert on cheap charter-flight holiday packages - something not allowed in Canada at that time.

Meanwhile, Toronto travel agent James Calladine decided to expand his two-office family firm, Calladine & Baldry. After interviewing Mr. Gill in London, he sent a job offer by telegram. It arrived on Christmas Day, 1962. Not wanting to interrupt his family's festive meal, Mr. Gill set it aside until later in the day. When he finally found time to discuss it with Beryl, she had already sent off a cable accepting the job.

In Canada, Mr. Gill and Mr. Nathan, who also hailed from Britain, started lobbying the Canadian Transport Commission for low-cost tour packages, called Inclusive Tour Charters. When new rules finally allowed Suntours to offer the charters to Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua and St. Lucia in 1969, the public was skeptical, Gill said in a 1989 interview. A one-week package to Barbados, including airfare from Toronto, seven nights hotel and two meals daily sold from $289, he said. At the time the lowest regular air fare was $650 and hotels had to be booked at daily rates.

In 1973, after more Ottawa lobbying by Gill, Suntours launched charter flights to Britain from cities across Canada in co-operation with Laker Airways, which was founded by Freddie (later Sir Freddie) Laker. The flights were open to anyone. Under the old rules, cheap flights were only available to members of an affinity club, or to those who lied and said they were.

Within Canada, charter flights were still illegal. But Mr. Gill found a way to skirt the rules. In 1979 Suntours launched cheap flights from Toronto to Seattle with bus service on to Vancouver and from Vancouver to Buffalo with bus service on to Toronto.

“As soon as the Canadian Transport Commission saw us doing that, they realized the game was up,” says Nathan. Before long, Suntours was allowed to operate charter service across the country.

As Suntours and its sister travel companies grew into a national empire, a schism developed at the top. In 1981, a number of top executives resigned, among them Mr. Gill, Mr. Nathan and David Hardouin. The three set up a tour company called Wayfarer Holidays. It later bought Fiesta Holidays and operated under that name.

Meanwhile, as Suntours brought in new managers and new investors, Nathan asked the courts to order the winding up of Caltrav, Suntour's parent company. Mr. Gill joined in the action. In order to protect the travelling public, Ontario's consumer ministry took over the case. On April 30, 1982, a judge placed Caltrav in liquidation. Mr. Gill, who once held $2-million in equity, received nothing.

Despite the earlier rift, Mr. Calladine sent a message of praise to a memorial service after Mr. Gill's death. “By any standard anyone might apply, Dennis Gill was a great man,” he wrote. “He had a huge heart and he affected positively the lives of just about everyone he met.”

Mr. Gill left Fiesta Tours after it was sold to Adventure Tours in 1991. He then held a contract position with Conquest Tours for a number of years, before retiring.

Dennis Gill leaves his wife Beryl; children Susan, David, Lesley, Julian, Neil and Simon; sisters Joan and Betty; and five grandchildren.

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